What’s in a Kiss? How People Describe Their Best and Worst Kisses Ever
September 28, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller
Kissing is among the most common sexual and romantic behaviors. Although it isn’t a universal activity across cultures (in fact, researchers haven’t found evidence of kissing in a surprisingly large number of places), in cultures where it does occur, it is often people’s first partnered sexual activity, and it is one of the most frequently practiced behaviors.
While a lot of research has addressed the role and value of kissing in our intimate lives (as well as our reasons for kissing), surprisingly little work has looked at the quality of kissing itself. I mean, what distinguishes a “good kiss” from a “bad kiss” anyway?
A recent study published in the Journal of Relationships Research sought to explore people’s memories of their best and worst kisses ever to help us better understand the dynamics of good and bad kissing.
Researchers surveyed 691 U.S. adults online, who were age 32 on average. Overall, 86% identified as heterosexual, with the remaining 14% reporting sexual minority identities (most commonly bisexual, followed by gay or lesbian).
Participants were asked extensive questions about their kissing history and attitudes, as well as their memories of different types of kisses, including open-ended questions about what their best and worst kisses were like, which the researchers then analyzed for themes.
On average, participants reported having had their first kiss at age 15 and said they had kissed 18-19 persons in their lifetime.
How important was kissing to these folks? When asked whether they would rather give up kissing forever or give up receiving oral sex forever, 49% said they would give up oral, 23% said they would give up kissing, and 28% could not decide. Likewise, many said that kissing was a major factor influencing their romantic/sexual interest in someone—almost half (44%) said that they had lost significant interest in someone simply from kissing them, while 14% said they had gained significant interest in someone from kissing alone.
Everyone described having had a “best kiss” and 96% described having had a “worst kiss.” So what made those kisses good versus bad?
Memories of Best Kisses
Most participants described their best kisses as occurring within a positive intimate relationship they had with someone, often the first kiss they had with a current or former romantic partner. However, some described their best kiss as occurring with someone they barely knew because there were “overwhelmingly desirable physical components of the kiss.”
For example, in the words of one participant, “I was meeting a guy in New York. I barely knew him and he was picking me up at the airport. When we got into the cab to go to our hotel, he started kissing me. Up until then, no one had kissed me that way. It was very powerful and made me feel very wanted.”
Many said their best kiss evoked a very strong emotional state, such as love, arousal, or passion—and people also often tied those kisses in with specific events and positive memories, such as getting engaged, a midnight kiss on New Year’s Eve, being on a special trip or vacation, or during a particularly hot sexual encounter.
Only a small number of participants (just 16 in total) said that their very first kiss was the best.
Quality and technique were not necessarily emphasized in the way people described their best kisses—these kisses had more to do with a specific person, a specific memory, and a specific positive feeling. This isn’t to say that the physical components of the kiss itself were unimportant, just that, for most people, this isn’t what made their best kiss the best—it was more about how the kiss (and their partner) made them feel.
Memories of Worst Kisses
By contrast, most participants talked about physical qualities when describing their worst kiss—specifically, they had elements that were “unfavorable or intolerable.” Indeed, many described these kisses as being “disgusting.”
For example, in the words of one participant, “The worst was when he just finished eating garlic bread and then practically cleaned my mouth out with his tongue. Gross!”
Also, unlike best kisses—which usually occurred with current or former romantic partners—worst kisses were far more likely to occur with persons who were either strangers or acquaintances. What made these kisses bad was often physical. For instance, as one participant said, “He had a tongue that felt like the size of a baseball. Every time he kissed me, his tongue would fill my mouth and almost go down my throat, it was wet and disgusting.” However, others tied it to an uncomfortable social situation, coercion or pressure to kiss someone they didn’t want to, or a lack of emotional connection or “spark” (e.g., “It was really like kissing a dead fish”).
Similar to best kisses, only a small number said their first kiss was the worst (just 24 participants said this).
Alcohol often played a role in worst kisses, too, such as being drunk and making out with someone you wouldn’t normally kiss. Perhaps not surprisingly, regret was a commonly described emotion when talking about worst kisses.
Although these findings do not come from a representative sample of adults and don’t consider cross-cultural variation in what makes kissing good or bad, they do tell us something important about how people tend to recall their best and worst kisses.
Specifically, the best kisses usually occur with a known partner with whom there is a certain spark or energy, with the kiss evoking a powerful emotional response. By contrast, the worst kisses are more likely to be with strangers or persons with whom there is no intimate connection, with the kiss itself having unpleasant physical qualities or taking place in an undesirable or uncomfortable situation.
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To learn more about this research, see: Simpson, K. S. W., O’Sullivan, L. F., Thompson, A. E., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2020). First, Best, Forbidden and Worst: Memorable Experiences of Intimate Kisses Among Heterosexual and Sexual Minority US Adults. Journal of Relationships Research.
Image Source: Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >